IT was the rainy season, which, in Central Africa means buckets of downpour almost every day, interspersed with spells of sapping heat. But no one in the town of Solwezi in Northwestern Zambia cared about the weather during those five days in January 2008, when their country played at football’s African Cup of Nations in Ghana. Having qualified for the event from a tough group the team and their supporters were confident of a good showing despite drawing Cameroon and Egypt, two of Africa’s most formidable teams.
I watched the games at different locations in Solwezi: the first—against Sudan–at the common TV room at the Catholic Diocese; the second at a down-market bar; and the third, at a swanky new hotel patronized by expatriates and local elites. This cross-section of Zambian society though was united in their support for the Chipolopolo (or ‘Copper Bullets) and their love for the beautiful game. I joined a motley group of resident priests, nuns, and those from the neighborhood without a television that witnessed Zambia defeat Sudan 3-0 in the first game. Spurred by this performance, the build-up to the Cameroon match was feverish, though many were torn between their natural support for Zambia and their love for Africa’s favourite son, Samuel Eto’o, the prolific Cameroonian goalscorer.
On the day of the game, spirits were high and Popo’s Bar in Solwezi—run by a middle-aged Indian origin gentleman named Popo Patel—overflowed with locals. But then it all came crashing down. Elementary errors by the Zambian defense and some nifty play by the Cameroonians meant that Zambia were down by three goals before halftime. In the end, Zambia were thumped 1-5 by a rampant Cameroonian side that ended runner up at the tournament. Even the most enthusiastic of Zambian football fans would have admitted to the wide gulf between the two teams that was glaringly evident that night.
Cut to 12th February 2012 and Zambia are now the champions of Africa. On a glorious Sunday evening in Libreville (Gabon), Zambia defeated the golden generation of Ivory Coast in a nerve-wracking sudden-death end to penalty shootouts. Unfortunately for Indian fans, our sports channels here consider second-rate action from Italian or English leagues more important than AFCON, and one had to scramble for online links to catch the action.
Zambia’s victory was all the more poignant for Libreville—now the site of Zambia’s moment to shine—was hitherto associated with what was undoubtedly the darkest moment in the country’s sporting history. In 1993, eighteen members of the Zambian national team died in a plane crash off the coast of Libreville after refueling en route to Senegal for a crucial world cup qualifier. The legendary attacking midfielder Kalusha Bwalya, considered one of Africa’s all time best, was—luckily—not on the plane since he was to join the squad in Senegal from Netherlands, where he plied his trade for PSV Eindhoven.
Cobbling together a makeshift squad after the tragedy, Zambia could not qualify for the 1994 World Cup, but they displayed tremendous pluck to reach the final of the African Cup that same year in Tunisia. Incidentally, after the 2008 AFCON debacle, Kalusha—or simply, Kalu to football lovers–was appointed the president of the Football Association of Zambia (FAZ). If one agrees that despite all odds Zambia were destined to become the champions of Africa in Libreville, then surely Kalusha was similarly destined to be at the helm when it happened.
During the tournament Zambia defeated Senegal, Ghana, and Ivory Coast, each a pre-tournament favourite. As a result they have jumped 28 positions to 43 in the latest FIFA world rankings. This represents a stupendous achievement for this country of eleven million that does not possess a single world-class football pitch. In fact, Zambia almost lost the right to host the home games of their 2010 World Cup qualification campaign because of this lack of infrastructure.
This was a new low for the country’s football that had seen better days. After independence from the British in 1964, Zambia nationalized its all-important copper mining sector, and the mining companies funded football in a big way. The first president Kenneth Kaunda—or KK, as he is popularly known—was a big fan and encouraged such investment. Within two decades, Zambia were a force to reckon with, and at the 1980s Seoul Olympics a young Zambian team blanked the favoured Italians 4-0. It was this talented and promising bunch that perished in Libreville. In any event though by the 1990s as the mining industry collapsed and privatization took place, football could no longer draw upon revenues from copper, and the myriad new owners were hardly interested in things other than their core business of mining. As Zambians were asked to cut the flab, football was now both a distraction and a luxury.
More recently, the Chinese have built a new stadium in the mining town of Ndola, though it is yet to host any competitive game. Given the popularity of football in Zambia and its troubled presence in the mining sector there, this is a diplomatic masterstroke by the Chinese. The point though is that despite the paucity of resources, Zambia—and Africa more generally—is a hotbed of footballing talent. Even in the backwaters like Solwezi, an upcoming mining town near the Congolese border, the standard of football that I witnessed at the local ground every evening was comparable to the best academies in India, judging from the insipid fare served up in the I-League. What this shows is that passion, practice, and basic technique can successfully make up for what a country may lack in infrastructure. Zambia’s AFCON win is the best thing that has happened to football in a while. There must still be hope for South Asia.